It’s very rare that the Duke Blue Devils have over a week between the ACC Tournament and the Big Dance, but after a quarterfinal loss to NC State in the conference tournament, those were the circumstances for Jon Scheyer’s team. 

Sitting at 24-6 heading into their regular-season finale against rival North Carolina, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 9 in the AP Top 25 Poll. But Scheyer’s team suffered back-to-back defeats to UNC, at Cameron Indoor, and the eventual ACC champion, North Carolina State, in the conference tournament.

It marked the first time Duke was one-and-done in the ACC Tournament since 2013. It also happened during Scheyer’s freshman season at Duke back in 2007, something the Blue Devils’ coach remembers well.

In this chaotic month of March, sometimes losing earlier in the conference tournament helps a team refocus for the Big Dance. Ask Auburn, who won the SEC Tournament but lost to 13-seed Yale, or Wisconsin, who was the Big Ten runner-up but got commanded by James Madison, if they could have used some more time to rest.

Scheyer looked at that early ACC Tournament defeat as a blessing in disguise for his team.

“It helped us a lot. I have not experienced that in a long time,” Scheyer told FOX Sports in an exclusive interview when asked about the early exit in Washington, D.C. “It’s more time than I would have liked, but it was necessary for this group. It was a necessary time. We needed to refresh and regroup, and look, we were right there with NC State with 30 seconds to go in a two-point game, and it’s not to take anything away from them because they outplayed us, but we didn’t put our best foot forward. 

“These eight days have been all about what we control. We control how we fight. We control how we play without fouling, how we rebound, how we get back on defense. And, we went over all that is controllable, and at the end of the day, as a coach you can only do so much. Your players have to carry it over, and they did. That’s what I’m really proud of.”

The Blue Devils executed defensively to a tee in their NCAA Tournament opener on Friday night, holding Vermont scoreless for the final 4:42 of the game and ending the contest on a 14-3 run en route to a 64-47 win. Duke’s defense held Vermont 25 points below its season scoring average, marking the 28th time this year that the Blue Devils have held their opponent under their season average.

“I learned a lot about them [tonight],” Scheyer told FOX Sports following the win, which was Duke’s eighth straight in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. “We talked before the game, and it doesn’t matter in the tournament. It does not matter what you’ve done the whole year. The tournament can be an amazing and cruel thing at the same time. You have one game to do it, and I thought our guys came out so ready to play, so ready to compete and they’re competitors. 

“When you wear this jersey, you can get a lot of attention — negative or positive — and these guys have been through both. And they’ve just hung tough, so to get this win in this environment, I’m really proud of them.”

There’s no question that there’s a natural pressure on Scheyer, the 36-year-old heir to Mike Krzyzewski’s throne at Duke, who now leads his Blue Devils into a second-round game against 12-seed James Madison (5:15 p.m. ET, CBS), who owns the longest winning streak in college basketball at 14 games. After Duke’s season ended with a 13-point loss to Tennessee last year in the second round of the tournament, the Blue Devils are trying to avoid an exit to a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament this time around.

Let’s make one thing clear: Taking March out of the equation for one second, the state of the Blue Devils program is in a great place. Duke has an extraordinary prospect in Cooper Flagg coming in next season to headline the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. The culture that Scheyer is building is outstanding, which can be seen with the likes of Kyle Filipowski, Jeremy Roach, Mark Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor all returning this past season, with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in mind. But Scheyer isn’t naive. He knows, as Duke’s coach, you’re going to get judged upon by what you do in this wacky, surreal and sometimes unforgiving NCAA Tournament.

The strength of Scheyer’s team that he will rely upon on Sunday is his three-headed monster of a backcourt. Freshman Jared McCain, who Scheyer said Friday night is “built different” for the big moment, delivered 15 points, six rebounds and three assists in his Big Dance debut. Roach, the seasoned veteran, posted 14 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Proctor added 13 points.

“It’s a luxury to have these three guards,” Scheyer said. “We put this team together with a vision in the spring of being able to play three guards with two other guards really in [Mark] Mitchell and [Kyle] Filipowski in the big spot where they can handle, pass and do all of that. So, we have to make up for it in other areas. We’re not the most athletic team, but our guards, the toughness and the skill that all three of them have, is unique. I thought they all showed it in moments [on Friday night].”

It will not be an easy test Sunday against a 32-3 JMU team that, frankly, was under-seeded by the committee and has a dynamic duo in Terrence Edwards Jr. and T.J. Bickerstaff, along with a deep supporting cast. But perhaps the best part about this Duke team is a performance like they got from Filipowski on Friday. The preseason first-team All-American, who was double-teamed all game by Vermont, only attempted one shot in 37 minutes. That feels unfathomable for a 7-footer who leads his team in scoring. But his 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals showed his value in other ways. That level of sacrifice really impressed a former All-American himself in Scheyer.

“I want people to understand what a unique game that was that he had because it would have been really easy to try to force up shots when they’re doubling him,” Scheyer said of Filipowski. “He probably didn’t even touch it enough. Every time he touched it, we got wide open shots. The guards, they hit some 3s, but they also missed some that he hit them with, but I thought his competitiveness was at such a high level tonight. For him to affect the game without scoring, not many guys can do that, and he’s one of them. I’m just really proud of him.

“People, I hope, understand and appreciate how competitive and unselfish he [Filipowski] is. I’m really proud of how he leads our program.”

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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